WASHINGTON — As the congressional page sex scandal has unfolded in Washington, Democratic candidates across the country are seizing on the controversy as a potent campaign issue and an emblem of why voters should strip Republicans of their majority in the midterm elections.
Just over a week after Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) resigned his seat, some analysts said the scandal was abruptly changing the focus of the fight for control of Congress -- at least for now. It is taking a toll on Republicans' national prospects, even though only a handful of GOP lawmakers are directly affected by the reports that Foley sent sexually explicit electronic messages to teenage congressional pages.
Democratic ads are popping up nationwide to put a spotlight on allegations that House GOP leaders were slow to respond to early clues about Foley's misconduct. The first such ad was aired days ago by Minnesota House candidate Patty Wetterling, a child safety advocate who was asked by Democratic leaders to give the party's weekly national radio address Saturday.
"Our nation's children and their parents don't deserve to endure fear in our schools, and it is wrong to make children endure fear within the halls of Congress," Wetterling said.
The scandal has helped increase the number of Republicans facing competitive challenges from 37 last week to 43 now -- a shift that includes four lawmakers who were considered safe but have now moved into the danger zone, according to the nonpartisan Cook Political Report's weekly analysis Friday.
"For Democrats, who have been hammering home a 'time for change' theme, the scandal in Washington and the inept handling of it by the Republican leadership in Congress crystallizes this message in a way that 30-second commercials never could," said Amy Walter, analyst of House elections for the Cook report.
Republicans are clearly nervous but remain hopeful that the scandal will recede in the month leading up to election day. They take heart from a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press that found that the scandal had not had discernible impact on whether voters planned to vote Democratic or Republican.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said the impact would be felt only in a handful of districts where lawmakers were directly involved in controversy about how the scandal was handled -- including Foley's district, which was considered safe for the GOP but now is considered likely to go Democratic. In other districts, Forti said, "people are going to the polls and it's going to be a choice between the two people on the ballot."
But a well-placed GOP strategist conceded that the landscape could quickly change as the scandal continued to unfold.
"If something else emerges, because they are following the story so closely, that will also penetrate real quickly so the dynamic could easily change," said the strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity when discussing party anxieties.
Over the weekend, for example, the Washington Post reported that a new source corroborated a crucial claim by Foley's former aide Kirk Fordham that Scott Palmer, chief of staff to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), was aware of Foley's inappropriate contacts with pages long before he had acknowledged.
Hastert spokesman Ron Bonjean did not contradict the account, saying only that the issue was being reviewed by the House Ethics Committee.
Bill Burton, spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that suggestions of a possible high-level coverup probably would embolden even more Democratic candidates to make the issue part of their campaign.
As a result, the midterm election campaign may end as Democrats had hoped in the beginning -- with a focus on ethics. That Democratic strategy had run aground for months when party members got caught up in corruption charges. Now, renewed focus on corruption may work more to their advantage.
An Associated Press-Ipsos poll taken while the scandal was dominating the news found that about half of likely voters said the issues of corruption and congressional scandal would be very or extremely important when they cast their ballots. About two-thirds of those voters said they would choose the Democratic candidate.
"Everybody out here in the Republican Party is trying to decouple as best they can from Washington," said Floyd Ciruli, an independent pollster in Denver. "The Foley issue has reignited the whole notion that Washington is corrupt. It reinforces the notion they don't police themselves, they're arrogant, they think they're above the law."
Democrats need a net gain of 15 seats to win a majority in the House, and six to capture control of the Senate.
The ripple effects of the scandal are reaching beyond House races into Senate campaigns.